A Trewly Awful Trip to the Desolat Interior of a Successful PlayPenn Dramatist: Interview with Ellen Struve

PlayPenn is an artist-driven organization, dedicated to improving the way in which new plays are developed. Their most prominent public event is a three-week conference each July in Philadelphia where they develop eight brand new plays by playwrights who are on the forefront of American theater. Each play receives two readings that are free and open to the public. To celebrate this year’s conference, Phindie is running six interviews with prestigious playwrights who have benefited from their experiences with PlayPenn.

Ellen Struve began playwriting in earnest after her early training in classical music. She participated in the undergraduate nonfiction workshop at University of Iowa and, though she did study playwriting there, she went on to get her Master’s degree in arts administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Struve is a founding member of the Omaha Playwrights Group and is the interim artistic director of Shelterbelt Theatre. She is a graduate of University of Iowa and School of the Art Institute of Chicago and authored Recommended Reading for Girls, which has been performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse (2013) and Studio Roanoke (2013); Nobody Gets Paid, performed at the Shelterbelt Theatre (2011) and Studio Roanoke (2012); Mrs Jennings’ Sitter, performed at Kokopelli Theatre (2010), Shelterbelt Theatre (2009), with staged readings at Studio Roanoke (2011) and the Great Plains Theatre Conference (Mainstaqe Selection, 2008); Mountain Lion, performed at the Shelterbelt Theatre (2009), with a staged reading at the 2009 Great Plains Theatre Conference (Playlabs Selection, 2009); and Brown Spots and Bird Wounds, performed at the 2012 University of Nebraska at Omaha Women by Women Festival, the Independent Actors Theatre (2011), and the Short Women’s Play Festival. Her most recent play is Prince Max’s Trewly Awful Trip to the Desolat Interior. She was a semifinalist for the 2012 Eugene O’Neill National Playwriting Conference, was named 2011 Emerging Female Playwright at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, and was a 2011 recipient of the Nebraska Arts Council Artist Fellowship. She works for the Nebraska Arts Council as the Arts Industry Manager. She was one of the 2015 recipients of the PlayPenn playwrights development conference, and is now back in Omaha, working with puppets and found that a good story requires a great deal of patience, hard work, and a wide variety of tools. July 5-24, 2016; playpenn.org.

Ellen Struve with artwork, photo by Ben Semisch, KANEKO
Ellen Struve with artwork, photo by Ben Semisch, KANEKO


Eger: How did you come up with the concept for your play, Prince Max’s Trewly Awful Trip to the Desolat Interior?

Struve: Karl Bodmer’s watercolors are a centerpiece of the Joslyn Art Museum in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. I had viewed the works as a child. As an adult wandering the museum, I came across Prince Maximilian’s journals and a piece of wall text describing the keelboat with live bears, a difficult winter, and a war. I knew then I wanted to learn more about this expedition and that it might be a play.

Eger: Describe the stages that your script went through, from your very first draft to the version that you submitted to PlayPenn.

Struve: While I researched the play assiduously, I did not want to be hemmed in by the history. The very first draft was more of a collection of responses to the prince’s journal. There were more scenes, more poetry, but fewer animals. I was struggling with how to write a history play and how to write a play about representation. Having both Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian played by women helped underline the perils of “true stories.” After all, who tells the history matters and this is my play, so it looks different than a history related by anyone else. I wanted it to have a wildness appropriate for a play that is both about the Missouri River of the 1830s and the current moment.

Eger: If you have taken other play development workshops, what made them different from your PlayPenn experience?

Struve: I have had a few plays at Great Plains Theatre Conference, a week-long conference where plays are given a public reading. Approximately 25 playwrights from around the country are accepted each year with three or so rehearsals before a public reading. It is a wonderful way to learn about a larger community of writers in a shorter period of time. PlayPenn really immerses the writer in the world of the play. The amount of focus and attention given to text is extraordinary. The length of the experience (3 weeks) and the opportunity to have a reading midway through allows for a great deal of growth.

Collaborative Process

Eger: Could you describe the input on your work, if any, by your dramaturg, Rebecca Wright?

Struve: Rebecca Wright was incredibly helpful in the process. Plays are such wonderfully large creatures. It is sometimes difficult to imagine the tail while examining the ear. Rebecca helped me keep track of the shape of the beast. She paid close attention to themes and was helpful in pointing out places in the script where themes had been lost or needed to be brought out.

Eger: What impact did Bill Fennelly, your PlayPenn director, have on the way you rewrote parts of your script?

Struve: I cannot say enough about how critical Bill Fennelly’s expertise in rhythm, tone, and pace were to rewriting and reshaping the play. Both of us have a musical background and we were able to approach the play as a kind of piece with various movements. He is incredibly generous with his intelligence and sense of fun. He could see how to arrange scenes in ways that served the journey.

Eger: Tell us about your work with the actors—including Caroline Dooner and Sabrina Profitt—especially anything they said that might have helped you in reshaping parts of your play or perhaps rephrasing something.

Struve: The actors at PlayPenn are rigorous in their attention to intention. Sabrina Profitt was wonderfully committed to playing Prince Max. The scene in which Prince Max recounts his experience with the Mandan chief Mato-Tope is a challenge. It is really a scene about the transformative power of acting. I had placed several interrupters in the scene to demonstrate its difficulty for the prince. Sabrina helped me see how some of these were getting in the actor’s way. She just dug into the difficulty of it. Also, Caroline Dooner has a drop dead gorgeous singing voice. This inspired me to put a piece of song that had been written as underscore into the character’s mouth. It was much more deeply affecting that way.

Eger: PlayPenn had invited a large range of theater artists, including stage designers.

Struve: Everyone at PlayPenn is focused on what the play wants to be. The opportunity to discuss how stage directions might be interpreted or what might limit a designer’s vision was useful. It is such a luxury to pick other artists’ brains outside the pressures of production.

Eger: Among playwrights in North America, both Paul Meshejian and Michele Volansky are legendary for nurturing new plays. Could you give examples of how their work shaped part of your script?

Struve: Michele Volansky came to a rehearsal where we were running the play in the chronological order of the history, mostly as an exercise. The final scene plays differently in this order. Bill and I took one look at each other during this rehearsal and we knew there was a way to take advantage of both methods of approaching the play. Paul Meshejian encouraged me to embrace more physicality in the script. His notes helped me understand an audience viewpoint. I am also grateful to Paul for his ability to pair playwrights and directors. I had not worked with Bill Fennelly before, but it was a great match.

Playing at PlayPenn

Ellen Struve, PlayPenn headshot by John Flak (1)Eger: One of the PlayPenn goals is to “provide as many resources and remove as many obstacles as possible.”

Struve: Well, in the “as many resources” category, I will attest that PlayPenn might be the only conference to provide a playwright massage by a professional masseuse. As far as removing obstacles, like many artists, my career is often cobbled together in parts. I move from workshop to grant to article. It was incredibly freeing to have the play be my entire focus for a three-week period.

Eger: Could you tell us a bit about your experience with Charlotte Cugnini, your intern?

Struve: Charlotte is quiet and thoughtful. She supports everyone during the process. She was wonderfully efficient, especially in organizing pages. I was so happy that she enjoyed her time with the play.

Eger: Each of your plays was given two public readings with professional actors. How much did that process shape your play?

Struve: Two public readings give permission to try more things—taking the pressure off for the first reading. We were very experimental. We tried an actor read stage directions as a character in the play. PlayPenn doesn’t necessarily solicit audience responses. There are no talkbacks. I didn’t really hear from audience members after the first read, but we listened closely to responses from the entire PlayPenn company during the first read and immediately adjusted the stage direction conceit as it was interfering with the pace of the play.

PlayPenn is a hive of theatrical activity. Someone is always rehearsing or meeting or just plain talking about theatre and everyone is very focused on getting the plays ready for readings. Having all of that buzzing energy behind you creates its own kind of momentum and helped me add more scenes, change more lines, and infuse more ideas than I might have had access to in a setting with fewer readings.

Eger: Overall, how would you describe the PlayPenn process and its impact on your play? What were some of the best insights you gained from the PlayPenn team?

Struve: The PlayPenn process is definitely immersive. It is deep sea diving. You get to put on scuba gear and explore the world of your play. The best insight I gained was how every image and piece of dialogue must be part of the play’s ecosystem. Keeping everything connected helps it live.

Playwrights Under Pressure

Eger: If there were moments where your play moved into a different direction than you had anticipated, how did you handle feedback and any possible misunderstandings?

Struve: Misunderstandings are so very, very useful. It is hard to get outside one’s own creation. There were a few moments in rehearsal when interpretation varied from my intention, but it was such a warm room and there was such respect for the process from all involved that it was easy to pipe up and say, “Oh, that isn’t what I meant at all.” Then we could discuss it and find ways to support what I meant to say.

Eger: What do you think your play or your main characters would say about being looked over and reviewed extensively by theater experts?

Struve: My play would definitely address the audience directly, saying, “Check it out. While you have been looking at me, I have been looking at you. You are an audience observed. Boom.” My play would make the “I see you, you see me” gesture with its hand.

Eger: While the serious work might have been stressful at times, were there funny, perhaps even hilarious, moments?

Struve: Sabrina Profitt is hilarious, period. It is delightful and unexpected when an actor in rehearsal says, ‘You know, I do play accordion” and then you can incorporate that into the reading.

Eger: As a PlayPenn playwright, how has your participation in this intensive workshop series changed the way you might handle challenging situations differently in the future?

Struve: It is a miracle any script is ever chosen, in any situation. It is an alchemy that can’t be predicted. For me, the important thing will be to apply the kind of focus and rigor I observed at PlayPenn to all future writing. I found that level of scrupulousness incredibly satisfying.

All’s Well that Playwrights Well: Beyond PlayPenn

Eger: Since 2005, PlayPenn has helped bring about 100 plays to a state they cautiously call “closer to production-readiness.” How close do you consider your play to be to that state? And what are the next steps you have taken to get it produced?

Struve: Participating in PlayPenn has made me rethink my submission strategy. I tend to focus on writing the work and haven’t been as rigorous in contacting theatres or publication entities. The amount of other people’s energy that was poured into my play at PlayPenn will drive me to submit it. To have so many minds behind you is inspiring.  

I am thrilled to say that Prince Max’s Trewly Trip to the Desolat Interior will have its premiere in Chicago next year at Red Theatre. Artistic Director Aaron Sawyer is making great work happen there, and I am looking forward to working with director Elizabeth Lovelady.

Eger: What has become of your work as a playwright since the PlayPenn conference?

Struve: I had a production of a new script, Untitled Series #7: A Comedy, at Shelterbelt Theater this winter. The play is a mix of Dante, divorce, art, and decapitation. It’s a romp. I was also able to put my love of historical work to use by creating a couple of pieces for our Smithsonian affiliate, The Durham Western Heritage Museum, and a commission about the founder of Immanuel Hospital. Much of the year was spent researching a play about immigration and the changing face of rural Nebraska that I will be working on as playwright-in-residence at Creighton University in 2017. We received a Global Initiative Project grant and I’m very much looking forward to developing the play, The Dairy Maid-Right Drive-Thru, in a university setting.

Eger: What have you discovered about yourself through the PlayPenn process—not only as a playwright, but as a mensch?

Struve: It is tempting to use the word juggler. It’s all the regular dilemmas of balancing personal, professional, and community life. Then someone throws in a watermelon and a bowling pin. It gets weird. It’s such an odd thing to say you are a playwright in Omaha, Nebraska. I like writing silly plays in nursing homes and doing puppet workshops with refugee children. I am attracted to long-term connections and collaborations. The plays are where I can take risks and this experience at PlayPenn showed me I could use a little more risk in my work. I am curious about investigating, exploring, and blurring more worlds together as an artist.

Eger: What advice do you have for the next generation of playwrights?

Struve: Partner well. It helps to come home to dogs, cats, children, people and plants who don’t really care if that character’s arc was realized or if the metaphor is working. Nourish others, both literally and figuratively.

Eger: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Struve: For me, the important thing will be to apply the kind of focus and rigor I observed at PlayPenn to all future writing. I found that level of scrupulousness incredibly satisfying. Leaving PlayPenn, I returned to work on a commission, set curriculum plans for workshops, and drove my children to three different kinds of music lessons. Diving back into everyday life made me realize how luxurious it had been to live in a three-week development process.

Eger: Many thanks, Ellen. Give my best to Prince Max, your other characters, your kids, and all your puppets and marionettes—and above all, a special WELCOME to all international refugees with whom you work.

For more information on this year’s PlayPenn conference, July 5-24, 2016, visit playpenn.org.

Read a three-part Phindie interview with PlayPenn founder and artistic director, Paul Meshejian:

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